“Hey, Sis?  You realize that the guy who’s selling you the laptop lives out in Frackville, right?”

I leaned over my sister’s shoulder and whispered a few non-English swearwords.  “Why the hell would he be out there?”

“I dunno.”

“So this means I have to go outside the city limits, then.”

“It’s only an hour’s drive beyond the wall.”  My sister shrugged.  “People do it all the time and they’re fine.  Katie went outside just two weeks ago to visit family.”

Mother emerged from the living room, her face drawn.  “Right into the middle of the Disturbance.  This laptop worth this to you?”

“I need a laptop to do my work.  No worries, Mom.”

***

I continued to tell myself I wasn’t worried even as I got ready for my trip in front of the bathroom mirror.  I pulled my hair back and stared at my face, belatedly regretting all the time I spent lounging in the sun over the summer.  Was my skin a bit too tan?

Maybe it wouldn’t matter.  Even though I had chosen my rattiest jacket and ripped jeans, it was painfully obvious I was a cityfolk.

I grabbed my knife and purse.  It really was going to be okay.

***

At the checkpoint, a pot-bellied bearded man with a gun slung across his back sauntered up to my car.  I rolled down my window.

He nodded.  “Hello there.  Purpose of trip?”

“Just travelling to Frackville to purchase a laptop.”

“Mmmmm, going shopping, huh?”  He eyed my purse eagerly.

“How much is the toll going to cost me?”

“I don’t know yet.”  He chuckled.  “You got your ID on you?”

I handed my metropolitan ID card to him.

He scowled darkly.  “Maria?”

“I’m Ukrainian,”  I snapped.

“Oh.  Yeah, I guess your last name does look Russian.  That’s okay, then.”

“Can I go?”

“Not sure.”  He leaned into my window.  “What are you doing trying to go into Nowhere unaccompanied, anyway?  It can be dangerous for females around here.”

“My father died defending the city during the killing days,”  I said coldly.  “It’s your militia’s fault that I don’t have a male guardian with me.”

To his credit, he looked abashed at this.  He cleared his throat and stepped back from the car.  “I see.  We need to run one more quick check on you, ma’am.  Rob?”  He gave my ID to the other guard, who was holding a tablet.  “Check her voting record?”

Rob typed my name in.  “She didn’t vote at all last election.”

“Lucky for you,”  the first guard said.  “You won’t get hit with our wrong candidate surcharge.”

“Great.”  I felt relieved and, for once, grateful for the political cynicism which led me to be a non-voter back in 2016.

“We’ll be nice.  Let’s make your toll payment an even hundred bucks.”

I forced a polite smile, made the payment and accepted my ID.  As I slowly drove away, a truck came to a stop at the checkpoint, and the guards gestured at the truck driver to get out so they could inspect his goods.  I heard the driver yelling obscenities at them, and I sped up until the checkpoint was out of sight.

***

The laptop seller lived in a little white house in Frackville’s mostly empty downtown area.  Across the street, there were a couple of abandoned buildings, with a Trump poster peeling away from one of the brick walls.

I knocked on the door.  A skinny old man cracked it open and peered out at me.

“Hi!  I’m here to pick up the laptop?”

“Nice to meet you, Maria.  Come on in.”

His name was Gus.  He grinned at the knife on my belt (“They still don’t let you have guns in the city?”) and then vanished into the back of the house.  I sat on the sofa and waited.  There was a cross hanging in the entry hallway, but I noticed a distinct lack of Trump portraits.  This was an encouraging sign.

I smiled at him when he returned, bearing the laptop.  “I see you’re not a big fan of President Trump, eh?”

He fidgeted nervously.  “May his soul rest in peace.”

“Amen.”

President Trump had been assassinated soon after the beginning of what we all called the Disturbance–because nobody wanted to call it a civil war–but the Disturbance rolled right along without him.  It was common for the residents of the Nowhere lands to give a place of honor in their home to portraits of the Martyr President, sometimes building miniature shrines in his memory.

After his initial moment of anxiety, Gus relaxed.  “Yeah, I never did like him much.  He seemed like a big talker to me.  Seemed like a fake.”

“Doesn’t that get you in trouble around here?”

“Me?  No.  I leave the militia guys alone, and they leave me alone.  I’ve lived here forever, anyway.”

I examined the laptop.  It was small and the keyboard was wearing out, but it would have to do.

Gus shuffled his feet.  “Sorry, I would offer you some coffee, but I only have a tiny bit left, and I don’t know when the roads will be clear for me to go get groceries.”

“That’s okay.”

“So what kind of work do you do?”

“I knit handmade hats and scarves.  I sell them online.”

I glanced up at Gus.  “Would you like my website address?  Maybe I could make you something?”

“No need for that.  Doubt I could afford it.”

There was no time for me to hang around any further.  I stood up and looked out once again upon the desolate street.

“Are you ever angry at the militia, Gus?”

“Angry?”

“About what they did to your town?”

Behind me, I could hear his soft laughter.  “The town has always been like this, before the militia ever came.  There haven’t been any jobs in Frackville for years and years.  Why do you think the people here voted for Trump?”

***

I opened the car door.  I couldn’t wait to leave this dead zone and go home.

Somewhere in the distance, the small figure of an armed man crossed the road.  The sight should have made me scared, but instead it made me sad.  How had we created a world like this?  How had we allowed this to happen?

The curtains in the front window of the little white house moved.  I didn’t want to make Gus uncomfortable by staying there too long.  I got in the car and started on the drive back to the checkpoint and my exit out of Nowhere.

 

 

America is a scary place these days.

As I leave my house in the morning, I have to dodge bullets from angry black people trying to shoot me up.  I can barely make it down my driveway.  I’m pretty sure the Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for this.

Even if I survive that, I still have to make it past the ISIS terrorists lurking behind every corner.  So many suicide bombings in my neighborhood.  We should have never let those suspicious refugees in.

And then there’s the commute, with crazy cars veering all over the road.  I’m a well-informed citizen, so I know what that’s about–illegal immigrants driving drunk.  And you think any of them will get deported?  Nooooo…  (Although to be fair, it could also be the hippies smoking that legalized pot.)

No, they will continue living in our country, taking our welfare and stealing our jobs (maybe at the same time!)  Right along with the Asians and other foreigners stealing our factories and our manufacturing.

What’s a frightened white person to do?

Thank God we have a strong leader like Donald Trump running in this election.  He will make all those scary people go away…somehow.  He will make America safe again!

At least…safe for me…right?

He grew irritated with their questioning.  They were members of the lamestream media, forever doubting the things he needed to do.

“It’s understandable that some people had to be arrested, but did they have to be shot?”

“They were troublemakers.  They were rioting.  Okay?  This is what happens.  Linda?”

“Do you have anything to say about the 30% unemployment rate?”

“That’s temporary.  That’s only temporary.  Sometimes there needs to be a little pain.  I’m about to bring amazing jobs to this country, believe me.  You have no idea.”

“But how will you do that, when…”

“Okay.  You’re done.  I already told you, honey.  Amazing jobs.  Hey Rick, how are you?”

“I’m doing very well, thank you.  Mr. President, you have increased domestic oil production…”

“We’re drilling everywhere.  Drilling everywhere.”

“…You’ve also removed excessive regulation, making it easier for our corporations to grow.  We’re getting richer by the day.  My question is, how much more glorious and powerful is America going to become in the near future?”

“You don’t even know, buddy.  So much glory.  So great.  Number one.  Number one.”

“Thank you for your inspiring answer.”

“No problem.  Let’s see…Dan?”

“Mr. President, you’ve shown that you are not afraid to punish our enemies, even if it means using nuclear weapons.  The American people are grateful for your help and protection…”

“You’re laying it on pretty thick, pal.”

“Hahahahaha….”

“But I do know that they’re grateful.  I know they are.”

“What do you tell the naysayers who say that you’ve made the world a more dangerous place?  That the civilian casualties in our strike on London were too high?”

“Those people were losers.  They had to be bombed.”

Another reporter chimed in.  “But those Americans who are protesting your policies…”

“They’re losers too.  That’s why I had to lock so many of em up.  Losers belong in jail.”

“Don’t you think that…”

“All right, I’m finished with this question.  We’re done.”

“Mr. President, please…”

“Hey Gary, will you remove this guy?  Will you take him outside?  Thank you.”

“What?  Hey, hold on!  You can’t do this!”

“Mr. President, you can’t just remove journalists because they ask you questions you don’t like.”

“You again, Linda?  I thought I told you before, sweet cheeks.  Security, take them both outside.  And make sure to help get them sobered up when they’re out there.  And don’t go easy on her–they wanna get equal treatment, right?”

Once the noise of the journalists getting dragged out of the room died down, the President nodded and lifted up his hand.

“Okay, we can keep going.  Kelsey?”

“You are obviously a man who cherishes and protects American women.  Where do you think that quality comes from?”

“That is a great question, Kelsey.  Believe me when I say that…”

The important thing to remember is that there is a rational answer to every question.

“Teacher, they’ve been draining my blood for a long time now. I’m starting to feel weak. When will it stop?”
“So you want the people who pump your blood to lose their jobs? And the people who transport it, and sell it? What do you think that will do to the local economy?”
“But I will probably die if this goes on.”
“Well, the free market gods don’t owe you your life. How selfish can you be?”

“Teacher, our food is trash. Can we request better quality food?”
“You do realize that will make it more expensive, right? Is that you what you want, for everyone to have to pay more?”
“I guess not.”
“Exactly.” *dangles smart phone in front of student* “Now look at the shiny toy and relax…relax…”

“Teacher, I’m ill. Do I have the right to medical care?”
“Oh, sure–medical care! What will you ask for next? Free Internet? A limo and a mansion? Why do you want to get something for nothing?”
“But I work for you.”
“So? I don’t have to give you enough to live on in return.”
“I don’t think I like this arrangement.”
“If you don’t like it, move on. Find someone else.”
“All the other free market gurus are assholes too. I don’t think they’d treat me any better.”
“That’s not my problem.”

“Teacher, I’ve lost my retirement money in the stock market.”
“Well, that’s your own fault. You chose to invest it.”
“So you’re saying I should keep my money out of the stock market?”
“Of course not! You can’t do that. If you don’t invest, you’ll never have enough for retirement.”
“Huh, I’m confused. Now what?”
“It’s up to you! Isn’t it great to have all this freedom?”

“Teacher, I’m working harder and harder, and barely surviving. I’m not able to afford health care, or an education, or a retirement. I’m paying a fortune for wars around the world. I need your help…what am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to show gratitude for how great your life is! Say thank you.”
“Thank you, Master.”

Here we go again.  Experts are stating that in the next few decades robots will take over most of our jobs and we will no longer have to work.  Neil Jacobstein, head of AI at Singularity University, has this to say:

AIs will cause significant unemployment but that doesn’t equate with poverty…AIs and other exponential technologies are going to generate vast amounts of wealth.  We have to be willing to change the social contract we have with people about how wealth is distributed.

Haven’t we heard this song before?  In fact, don’t we hear it on a regular basis?  I remember the black and white films from the ’50s presenting a futuristic lifestyle in which machines do everything for us and all we have to do is find new ways to relax.  If their predictions had been true, I should have been spending the last 20 years or so with my feet up, drinking cocktails.  In fact, computers were supposed to make our lives simpler and easier.  Instead, life is even more complex, fast-paced, stressful.  I have a feeling running a robot society won’t change that any.  And I don’t even want to imagine what happens when we get our minds microchipped, as Mr. Jacobstein suggests–my employer would probably force me to process 10,000 thoughts per minute.

The truth is I don’t want these prophecies about the future to come true.  Because life in those ’50s visions of technological utopia looks…mind-numbingly boring.  People spend their days playing tennis and watching quiz shows on TV.  I already waste too much time on Facebook–would I spend even more time on there?  Sharing updates about what kind of food and drink the robots are serving me, since that would be my only activity anyway?  I suppose I would be able to blog more often.  But if people were no longer getting exploited and overworked by their capitalist bosses, what on Earth would I blog about?

Maybe the reason this makes me so uneasy is that if I didn’t work, there would no longer be any excuse for not getting started on that big fat novel I’m supposed to write.  Come to think of it, the ennui of people who do nothing all day is a perfect subject for angsty fiction.  Hmmm….bring on our robot overlords, I guess.

Well, it looks like an extension of unemployment benefits will not be a part of the new budget deal.  Meanwhile, the long-term structural problem with employment in this country–that of jobs getting outsourced overseas–continues.  What are the unemployed to do?

There’s an obvious solution which would warm the cockles of even Paul Ryan’s bleak, Ayn Rand-infused heart.  It’s about time we had a real hunger games.  Except this one would involve only unemployed people.  They’re takers and moochers, so their lives are not worth as much anyway.  And there’s no way that any of the wealthy job creators should be risking their well-being in a competition like this.  We could have a contestant from each sector of employment which has been losing jobs to other countries:  manufacturing, high tech, call centers etc.  Just like in the movie, this would be a reality TV show–thus, getting rid of the jobless and producing a profit at the same time!  The lone survivor could get an extension of his/her unemployment benefits.  Or even better, the winner could be rewarded with a job.  Sure, chances are you would lose your life in the games, but if you’re not willing to do anything to get a job, you’re just not trying hard enough.

If nothing else, this would be a refreshingly honest proposal from Paul Ryan.  But I doubt we’ll ever see such honesty on Capitol Hill.